It is indeed rare that the gist of a prime minister’s address at the country’s Combined Military Commanders’ Conference, let alone the full text, is not released to the media. But that was precisely what happened on 21 January when Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed the conference at Dehradun, thanks to the directives of the Election Commission. And these directives, which also proscribed the prime minister to hold a public rally in the state that day, followed the complaints to the Commission by the Congress party about Dehradun being made the venue of such a conference.
The Congress saw “political motives” of the Modi government behind the supposed “change” (this charge has not been supported by any hard evidence, though) of the venue from Gangtok in Sikkim to the capital of the poll-bound Uttarakhand. It had asked the Commission to put off the conference.
Merits in the EC’s directive to blackout Modi’s speech can always be debated. For instance, if the Commanders’ Conference was held in some other state not facing elections, Modi's speech there could have easily reached in this age of instant communications to the electorate of Uttarakhand. What qualitative difference would it have made then? At the same time, however, one should appreciate the concerns of the commission in taking that decision. The concerns relate to the possible collateral advantages that the prime minister’s address at a military function would have on Uttarakhand’s electorate, a significant section of which is constituted by the servicemen, ex-service men and their families.
It must be noted that the 'fauji factor' plays an extremely important role in Uttarakhand, given the fact that about 40 percent of the population of the Himalayan state comprises serving and retired soldiers, officers and their families. The Army, it is noteworthy, raises two of its most important regiments from the state – Garhwal and Kumaon. There are about two-lakh ex-servicemen in Uttarakhand, along with more than 80,000 people currently serving in the armed forces. And there are nearly 40,000 widows of the defence personnel in the state. In fact, as of 20 January, of the 60,82,823-strong electorate in Uttarakhand (total population is 1,01,16,752), as many as 82,213 happen to serve presently in the three armed services (58,210 males and 24,003 females). These figures are as per the official website of the Chief Electoral Officer of Uttarakhand.
It is widely believed that the “fauji factor” does invariably go in favour of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). It is the BJP which had made B C Khanduri, a retired Major General, the Chief Minister of the state. Given the relatively smaller Assembly constituencies, the votes of the servicemen have played the crucial difference (often in double digits) in determining the winners and losers. The most notable case in this regard happens to be the by-elections held for the Pauri-Garhwal Lok Sabha seat in February 2008 following the election of Khanduri as the Chief Minister of the state and his subsequent resignation from the Lok Sabha, in which it was the postal ballots of the serving army men that tilted the balance in favour of BJP candidate Lt Gen TPS Rawat (retd).
No wonder why there is a popular theory that by keeping the 'fauji-factor' in Uttarakhand in mind, the Modi government recently chose General Bipin Rawat as the Chief of the Army Staff by ignoring the well established convention of seniority in the Army. General Rawat superseded two of his seniors in the process. He hails from the Pauri-Garhwal region and is the first officer from Uttarakhand to have risen to the rank of an Army Chief. The basic idea of the BJP-led government at the centre, so runs the logic, was to project General Rawat as the pride of Uttarakhand and thus attract votes for the BJP.
The BJP has also used Congress Vice president Rahul Gandhi’s critical comments of the “surgical strikes” in Pakistan-controlled territories last year as an electoral opportunity to woo the serving and ex-service men in Uttarakhand. In a campaign named “BJP ka abhiyan-Sainik ka samman”, the party has felicitated armymen, ex-servicemen and their families across the state.
However, the issue that the BJP wants to highlight the most to convert the fauji-factor in its favour is the one pertaining to the One Rank One pension (Orop). And ironically, the Congress is leaving no stone unturned in convincing the people that the Modi government has cheated the ex-servicemen and their families by not implementing the Orop. It, therefore, remains to be seen whose version the electorate is going to buy.
In a public rally in the state last December, the prime minister had said that out of Rs 10,000 crore needed for the Orop scheme, Rs 6,600 crore had already been released by the Centre and that the remaining would be released soon. According to former Chief Minister Khanduri, who is the present Chairman of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Defence, “Almost 90 percent of the issues around Orop have been resolved by us (the Modi government). It will definitely attract votes for the BJP.”
But then, the point is that the Congress is exploiting the pending problems of 10 percent with the Orop by saying that Modi-government’s scheme is incomplete. In fact, at the national level the party has garnered the support of a section of the veterans led by Maj Gen (Retd) Satbir Singh, which has been continuing its protests at Delhi’s Jantar Mantar for the last two years (in the forms of relay hunger strikes and periodic fasts onto death campaigns) against the Modi government over what it says for the partial implementation of the Orop. These protestors have pledged their support to the Congress in both the poll-bound states of Punjab and Uttarakhand. As a result, if Lt. Gen. (retd.) TPS Rawat (who has since left the BJP) is to be believed, “The ex-servicemen votes are divided. By not agreeing to all demands under the Orop scheme, which it had promised, the BJP has earned the ire of the ex-servicemen.”
It may be noted that the veterans were receiving Orop until 1971, the year when the Indira Gandhi government cut down military pension from 70 percent of the last pay drawn to 50 percent of the last pay drawn and increased, simultaneously, the pension of the civil servants from 30 percent of the last pay to 50 percent. Since then, it has so happened that every central government has downgraded the military in pay, perks and status, compared to the civilian bureaucrats.
It was on 5th September 2015 that the Modi government acceded to the demand of the veterans by saying that the implementation of the Orop scheme – equal pension for equal number of years in the service in the same rank – for over 25 lakh ex-service men (ESM) and their dependents in the country benefit would be given with effect from 1st July, 2014, fixed on the basis of the calendar year 2013. Arrears will be paid in four half-yearly installments. All widows, including war widows, were paid arrears in one installment. The pension will be re-fixed for all pensioners retiring in the same rank and with the same length of service as the average of minimum and maximum pension in 2013. Those drawing pensions above the average will be protected.
The government also decided that the gap between the rate of pension of current pensioners and past pensioners will be bridged every 5 years. Although the veterans have been demanding equalisation of pension every year, the government went for a compromise of every five years, as against the present system of pay revisions for all the government servants every 10th year. It is said that this compromise is not for the monetary implications (which will not be much) but for administrative difficulties.
When defence minister Manohar Parrikar announced the Orop scheme on 5th September 2015, there was a little confusion over whether personnel who retire voluntarily will be covered under the Orop scheme. But subsequently, both the prime minister and defence minister clarified separately that everyone who retires early (because of injury, illness, lack of further promotions or family compulsion after serving the mandatory tenure–15 years for jawans, 20 years for officers) will get benefit of Orop.
Of course, still there are some minor irritants in the Orop implementation. But then, the government is looking into them through a judicial committee. If still dissatisfied, the veterans can always to go higher courts. But these issues are not major enough to say that the Modi government has actually betrayed the ex-servicemen by not restoring the Orop scheme (that was discontinued by the Indira Gandhi government), a promise Modi had made as a prime ministerial candidate.
Incidentally, the very definition of the Orop was devised in 2011 by a parliamentary committee that was headed by BJP leader Bhagat Singh Koshyari, former Uttarakhand Chief Minister. And what does he say about the mischief makers led by Major General (Retd) Satbir Singh? “Maybe some in the agitation are thinking just because the government is listening to them they should squeeze out as much as possible. Greed may be playing a part. I can’t rule out that there may be political motivations to this issue as well.” According to him, the government had walked more than ‘99 percent’ on its promise.
It is worth mentioning here that based on the Koshyari Committee’s report, the then UPA government led by Manmohan Singh had arrived at a figure of Rs 1,300 crore required to pay the arrears for Orop in 2011-12. In 2013-14, the government enhanced the amount to Rs 1,573 crore. P Chidambaram, the then finance minister, in his interim budget speech on 17 February 2014 had granted a measly Rs 500 crore (based on the estimate of Rs 1,573 crore) for the year 2014-15.
Against this background, the Modi government spending nearly Rs 10,000 crore a year on the Orop is a significant improvement, even though there are some grey areas in the scheme to be sorted out by a judicial committee. But then, will the fauji-factor in Uttarakhand be amenable to this improvement? We will know the answer on 11 March.
Updated Date: Jan 22, 2017 14:39:09 IST